A new report out today, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years [pdf] authored by Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, reveals that the use of genetically modified (GM) corn, soy and cotton crops has increased the amount of pesticides used in the past 13 years by 318 million pounds.
This information comes to light as the industry struggles to position itself as providing environmental benefit through use of bt technology — insecticide producing seeds — savings from which are diminished in light of a six times greater herbicide usage.
Farmers have become increasingly critical of both GM seed as it goes up in price, and herbicides like Roundup, also known as glyphosate, as ‘superweeds‘ become prevalent in treated fields. The growth of pigweed, which can quickly reach widths of 6 inches at the stalk, and other invasive, glyphosate-resistant species increases farmers reliance on more high-risk herbicides, including 2,4-D, dicamba and paraquat, and has resulted in a return to hand harvesting and even abandoning of fields.
Dr. Benbrook used the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service data and publicly available Monsanto information to ascertain these findings. The report states that it became increasingly difficult to get such information from the USDA as it ceased collecting thorough data on pesticide usage in the US in recent years. Furthermore, the USDA has never conducted research on the relationship between GM crops and increased pesticide use, resulting in a lack of in-depth information to inform regulators. (I wrote about the need for more such research here, where Dr. Benbrook also chimed in.)
The report challenges researchers and regulators to consider the following:
Herbicides and insecticides are potent environmental toxins. Where GE crops cannot deliver meaningful reductions in reliance on pesticides, policy makers need to look elsewhere. In addition to toxic pollution, agriculture faces the twin challenges of climate change and burgeoning world populations. The biotechnology industry’s current advertising campaigns promise to solve those problems, just as the industry once promised to reduce the chemical footprint of agriculture. Before we embrace GE crops as solution to these new challenges, we need a sober, data-driven appraisal of its track record on earlier pledges.
With glyphosate producer Monsanto encouraging farmers to diversify their herbicide use to control superweeds, this research shows that we could be at a turning point for Roundup Ready technology. As farmers realize the cost effectiveness of conventional seeds which deliver similar yields and allow seeds to be saved for reuse in future seasons, GM crops could prove a technological experiment gone wrong as we move toward creating a more durable and diverse food system.